Learning to be Resilient in the World of MS
When life feels like it is at its worst, you have the opportunity to be at your best. Receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) represents one of these junctures. You are blindsided by a betrayal of your body that feels like it will never stop. Your knee-jerk reaction is to run or hide under the covers; although neither of those are useful options. What is helpful is recognizing you can shift your mindset and respond with positivity; decreasing your stress and increasing your overall wellness.
In his myth The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell writes about a person being thrust into the unknown unexpectedly, facing challenges, discovering help, and returning to thrive in a new normal with a magic elixir. An adversity such as a MS diagnosis can push you out of your comfort zone and into the unknown. Often times, this comes unexpectedly, leaving little time to prepare such as when you hear those dreaded words, “You have MS” while panic automatically sets in, causing you great distress. Stress is the root of disease; taking a large toll on your physical and emotional health. So how can you overcome what you have no control over? You can discover your own resilience.
We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Campbell
Resilience has been defined as the capacity for humans to (1) maintain or regain well-being, and to (2) maintain or regain progress towards valued goals in the face of adversity. Resilience includes the ability to not only face the major challenges that MS can pose – such as loss of mobility or losing a job – but also the daily hassles. People living with MS have described resilience as the ability to “thrive” and “bounce back, again and again” in the context of MS. People who are resilient may still experience feelings such as sadness, discouragement, frustration, anxiety, anger, or loss; these feelings are a normal part of the human condition. However, what is different about resilient individuals is that these feelings are not permanent nor define the individual. Resilience also does not mean a person is in denial. Rather, individuals who are resilient exhibit a realistic optimism, meaning that they are able to maintain well-being while dealing with their current reality, whatever it may be. Resilience thus often entails both hope for a good life and courage to tackle the very real challenges MS can present.
Resilience is the measurement of whether you bend or break and is your ability to overcome, especially when faced with an MS diagnosis or other changes. Like a muscle, it can be developed and is influenced by many factors including your current physical and emotional wellbeing, nutrition, and spiritual practices, if any. And although the unknown is a way of life when living with MS, when you are resilient you can face it with strength and confidence; experiencing risk and reward, meeting each test of character, undergoing positive transformation. Resilience, in Appelbaum’s interpretation, is your magic elixir.
Research points to a number of skills or resources that resilient people utilize and cultivate when facing challenges such as living with a chronic disease. Some of these include having or developing problem-solving skills, communication skills, and self-management skills for managing symptoms and tasks associated with MS. Resilient self-management entails having and enacting a proactive plan for managing flare-ups of common symptoms such as fatigue or pain. A self-management plan may include any or several of a range of self-care strategies such as:
- Practicing mindfulness,
- Meditation or prayer,
- Physical exercise or movement,
- Social activity,
- Planning ahead so as to pace yourself energetically-speaking,
- Changing unhelpful self-talk to more helpful, reassuring thoughts.
Having and nurturing supportive relationships are also fundamental. People who are resilient are also aware of what their strengths are and build upon those. They deploy their strengths, such as a sense of humor or a network of supportive family and friends, to get through challenges. Their mindset is often focused on what they can do, not on what they can’t do. They recognize that there will be challenges and hassles to face and have a plan for facing or growing from them. The more resilience you deploy, the more your confidence in your ability to manage and thrive despite MS will grow.
It is important to understand that resilient individuals still experience “negative” emotions such as anger, frustration, fear, and sadness. These are normal emotional responses to challenges, adversity, and loss. What distinguishes resilient individuals, however, is that they have the ability to cope with these negative emotions in such a way that they do not remain unhappy. Resilient individuals cultivate and savor positive experiences and emotions, even simple ones such as enjoying the beauty of a sunrise or enjoying time with family and/or friends. Positive emotions - such as joy, satisfaction, contentment, or happiness- are not simply by-products or indicators of emotional wellness. Multiple scientific studies have shown that positive emotions serve important roles in a human’s ability to be resilient. Positive emotions provide respite from painful or difficult experiences and replenish resources exhausted by stressful events. They help sustain coping in the face of challenges. Thus, deliberately fostering and paying attention to positive emotions may build your resilience.
In order to discover and nurture your resilience to assist you in facing MS, Appelbaum offers tips from her signature G.I.F.T. program:
- Get clear – when first diagnosed, instead of asking “Why me?” shift your mindset and ask “Why not me?” Find ways to center yourself and look deep within; perhaps through meditation or prayer. It is normal to mourn the good health you have lost so take your time. Once you have done so, accept what is happening to you, have faith in yourself, and take a step forward.
- Increase understanding – this is a time to sort through the chaos in order to gain an in-depth understanding of your condition. Reach out to trusted family and friends for support. Ask questions until you truly understand what you are being told. Try to be flexible as you adjust to this new normal.
- Focus – now is the time to put together your team of experts with you as the co-captain along with your physician. Determine what you need, whether it is a nutritionist, personal trainer, physical therapist, yoga classes, creative art classes, etc.; whatever you need to help you be your healthiest self.
- Take action – this is when you have put everything into place and it is time to adjust to your new normal. Cultivate relationships that nurture you, find what you’re passionate about, discover what you want to do with your good health, and start to thrive.
- Most importantly, remember that although you are not responsible for what has happened to you, you are responsible for how you respond to it. Choose to respond with resilience and you will live well even with a chronic disease.
By nurturing your resilience, you will recognize your strengths and build upon them; never letting your disease control you. Although at times you may feel broken, hopeless, and/or scared, you are powerful beyond measure when you tap into your resilience. Resilience will empower you to be in control of your health instead of being a victim of it.
Addressing the Challenges of MS. http://www.nationalmssociety.org/Resources-Support/Library-Education-Programs/Resilience-Addressing-The-Challenges-Of-MS
How to Bounce Back. http://agerrtc.washington.edu/info/factsheets/resilience